A sad mime feigned a smile and struck a familiar pose, leaning into an invisible shelf in a dingy Northeast Philadelphia hotel he was then calling home.
Billy Carwile, 62, was born deaf in Philadelphia and found a calling as a mime, training in Paris and performing all over the city and country for decades before he fell on hard times.
Carwile and his mother, Anna, 86, had a simple wish when they came home to Philadelphia 20 months ago from Newport News, Va. They were looking to pool the roughly $2,000 a month they bring in from Social Security toward a house. They weren't dreaming of the Motel 6.
"All I wanted was a house to live in so I could die in peace and Billy could be safe," Anna Carwile said from beneath a comforter in their hotel room, her head recently shaved because of lice.
Most of Billy Carwile's belongings, his computer, legal documents, some sweet potatoes, and a statue of the Blessed Mother were stuffed into the room, which they had been renting for $600 a week, at the Motel 6 on Roosevelt Boulevard, and he was due to check out with nowhere else to go.
"We have nowhere to turn, no one to help us," Anna Carwile said. "It's been hard on him, because he gave up his life and career to take care of me."
Some of their dreams, like returning to the house where they once lived in Kensington, literally went up in flames. A squatter was living there, and it burned down.
They have been in and out of the crime-ridden Neshaminy Inn for 10 months. Billy made signs for pistols and needle injections with his hands to describe the motel.
Billy was raised in Philadelphia and attended Deaf Oral Catholic School. He later went to Montana State University, where he majored in social work and theater, and said he studied at the École Internationale de Mimodrame in Paris under Marcel Marceau. He worked for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown as a "storyteller and communication specialist" from 1986 to 1998.
"He can mime anything," said Carol Finkle, a longtime family friend and a mother to deaf children, who translated for Billy Carwile at the hotel.
Billy hopes to perform and instruct more regularly, once he gets his mother settled into a home. A day after the interview, he was paid to perform at an expo for the deaf in Connecticut.
"I knew how to mime the whole history of World War II," he said, dropping bombs on an open palm with his other hand.
Mother and son have had brief stays in two single-family homes in the city since they've been back, and both ended badly. One of the homes was almost uninhabitable, Billy said.
"We stayed at the motel for weeks while I cleaned day and night. There were dead cats in the walls, holes everywhere. I had to go in and pull the dead cats out, but Mom and I were so desperate to get out of the hotel, I thought, maybe this could work," Billy said of one of the homes.
Neither landlord returned requests for comment.
Philadelphia, Billy said, is a bad place to be deaf. He said police officers and hospital staff had refused to call interpreters in recent months, and various real estate agents simply hung up when contacted by video relay, where a translator speaks to someone for him.
"I would say, 'Hi, my name is Billy,' and they would hang up," he said.
Officer Tanya Little, a police spokeswoman, said the department tries "to communicate as best as possible for whatever situation we're in."
Billy also said Liberty Resources, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with disabilities live independently, did not help him and even barred him from entering its building on Market Street near Seventh Street.
Thomas H. Earle, Liberty's CEO, said Billy Carwile was adamant about finding a single-family house for himself and his mother, and had refused apartments or other forms of housing.
"We've tried to help him, and, sadly, there are many people with disabilities, low-income families with disabilities, who are seeking affordable, accessible housing here in Philadelphia," he said.
Earle defended Liberty, saying it has a "pretty thriving deaf outreach program."
Billy made a sign for "pain in the behind" in reference to Liberty.
Finkle, 74, of Center City, said the Carwiles have been living a "BTN life," as in "better than nothing," and deserve better.
"This is a nightmare scenario," she said. "My goal is to help them find a house."
The Carwiles managed to negotiate an extra day out of the Motel 6 for nothing, but as Anna's full-time caretaker, Billy is still unable to work steadily, and their collective savings are dwindling.
Now they're at a Knights Inn in Bensalem, paying $565 a week.
Billy, while signing about his ordeal in Philadelphia, broke into brief mime skits. He reached toward the popcorn ceiling at the Motel 6 and plucked an imaginary apple.
He rubbed the invisible apple on his chest and offered it as a gift, only to say a second later that the apple was filled with worms.